Monday, December 16, 2002

Home Safe

On the way into Bloomington on highway 37, shortly after Martinsville, we traveled through the swath of land hit by tornadoes back in September. I don't remember if anyone died, but I'd be surprised if none did. There are so many disasters; they come in and out of the news, and within a week or two we've forgotten how bad it was, because we don't live there and we didn't know the people. What I saw looked like a war zone without the burn marks. My wife, who had come up earlier in the fall, said it looked far worse in October. By December, a lot of the mess had been cleaned up; reconstruction of homes and commercial buildings was well underway, but you could see these people had taken a terrible hit. These are not the digs of the rich and famous, just...people, ordinary people who probably work hard for a living. There were still plenty of topless trees standing, big trees, the trunks of which had been twisted and snapped like matchsticks, and others lying around, having been completely uprooted. You could follow the tornado's path as it tried to climb a hill. The breadth of the destruction was stunning. Some of the original damage in a place called Gaston looked like this:

And that was caused by tornadoes estimated to have been no stronger than F2, possibly F3. Later, in November, some F5's would touch down in Tennessee and Ohio and kill dozens.

I have never lost everything, have never come close that I can recall. I've come close to losing my life, but not my "things." The sight put me in mind of something very ordinary - the prayers I'd said back in Florida, before boarding the plane, for a safe trip. The prayer for my daughter, flying out of Memphis to join us in Indianapolis, had more urgency to it. I can't stand the thought of the young dying. Me, I figure I've got what's coming. I don't like to fly. I loved it as a kid, but then I grew up and found out I could die. I found out that diseases and disasters have a terrible randomness to them. Although it's always been a marvel to me, riding in a hunk of machinery that is itself riding nothing but air feels unnatural; the fragility of the relationship assaults my common sense. When the plane lifts off I always think, "You gotta be kiddin' me." I don't like the resistance air provides against falling bodies. Compared to the chair I'm sitting in, it has no substance. And yet the numbers tell me I have a greater chance of injury or death every time I hop in my car, or get caught in a lightning storm. But I never say a prayer when I get in my car. The wheels are on the ground. I can feel them there. If my wife or a daughter is travelling some distance by car, I'll say a prayer, but never for myself. It's not that I purposely avoid it; I just forget. Maybe that's because, though I know I can die, I don't really believe it will happen. Childish, isn't it? But many of you don't believe it either. And how often, after those you have prayed for arrive safely, have you forgotten to say thanks? I have, many times.
Once everything's okay, we take it for granted. Maybe the close call wasn't a close call after all. You either lose your life or you don't.

I've always been uncomfortable with prayers of supplication, which is what these requests for a safe trip are, for several reasons. For one thing they spring to our lips reflexively, with an automatic regularity, like eating breakfast or going to church. It's the easiest kind of prayer and the first to come to mind. And why is that? Because, almost without exception, it is to some degree selfish in origin. Even if offered on behalf of another, the granting of it will redound to your own well-being in some way, your sense, for example, of a just and well-ordered world, the sense of loss you will not have to endure should this person dear to you perish. I don't deny that we offer these prayers out of love, nor that we do so because, in charity, we owe it to them, only that the gesture is not entirely devoid of self-interest.

Furthermore, I mistrust my own disposition, my entire spiritual deameanor; or, in the slang of today's young people, my fear that I will utter such prayers with "attitude," the impertinence of "I'll supplicate, You supply." For I know in advance that should my wife or daughter die in the air or on the highway or in the tornado's vortex, no prayer of thanksgiving or of resignation will be forthcoming. Prayers of Praise to the glory of God will cease, stifled at their source, will die in the throat, for my outrage at the divine dispensation would be fulminant. I know this of myself, and it's not an easy thing to know. What I don't know is whether the outrage would pass. Christ's prayer to the Father in the Garden, that His sufferings might pass by if possible, but "Thy will not mine be done," is one we have all rehearsed, but in my case that's about as far as it's gotten. It's not a fun prayer. It's completely self-effacing. His will rarely coincides with my own. Some people are so offended by the Divine Permission that they come to hate Him. Unlike atheists, who simply disbelieve in Him and like to make a big noise about it, these others don't talk much. They live lives not of quiet desperation but, as they suppose, of quiet revenge, as if by withholding their love they might injure it at its Source. It's a losing proposition, and they know it, no good fruit can come of it, yet they nurse this grudge with a resolve that, had it been put to the desire for sainthood, would be entirely admirable, might change the world even. And its cause is as old as the Fall: "Give me what's mine. You have no right to take it away. You owe it to me." As we become older, this temptation becomes greater; it curls up and settles in like a habit. The little injustices that peck away at our lives like buzzards at a banquet, weaken us. The big ones can kill us. Could this happen to me? Do others skate the same thin edge, so precariously balanced between rising and falling? Could I learn to nurture a grudge against the Good? Sometimes it seems the best recourse would be to disavow the supplicant's prayer altogether, so that, if I expect little, all that comes my way will seem like excess.

Prayers for myself, especially my own safety, are the ones that cause the most discomfort. It's the old conflict, an apparent conflict anyway, between faith and reason. Faith tells me that I should pray "in such wise" if for no other reason than to give thanks for the life that I have had thus far, to acknowledge the very gift of it. But behind it, I know, lies the desire to live longer, and to have more of it. Enough is never enough. I like it here. There have been moments when I wished I could die but, after returning to sanity, I could see that the moment held nothing saintly, that it was rather an infinite ingratitude, born of some self-pity, not of a sacrificial longing, or a desire to see God face to face. Reason tells me that "out there" is a day, an hour, a minute when my number is up. Will prayer postpone that hour? There is a passage in the Good Book that would seem to demur, something to the effect that we cannot, by taking thought, add one minute to our lives. C.S. Lewis speculated that prayer worked in several ways, of which one was in advance. God, knowing even before you were born or conceived what prayers you would offer, has applied the benefits to your life. You have it as good as you do because of the merits of those prayers, your own and those of others. Sounds reasonable. It explains what good the prayer is, in the here and now, to see me safely home. And yet, many seem to die so young, having been prayed for mightily. Of what import, in that light, is my safety? For a certainty, it is not ours to say when "It is finished." We have to accept that. The Christian is asked to accept a lot that,on the surface, and in the weakness of our hearts, should scatter in the "light" of reason. That His ways are not our ways comes from His own mouth, has been preached from every pulpit, is known by us for a faithful truth; and still we demand an explanation.

Of course, the explanation is in the cross. After a Christian accounts for every doubt and difficulty he has confronted, after he is finished pointing to every perceived injustice wherein the wicked flourish and the good perish, when he is done directing his shouts of rage heavenward, he must always turn round to find the cross standing in his path and shaming him to silence, to the remembrance that there was really only one injustice, only one being of true innocence to have ever walked this earth, and to have suffered and died for it because you and I couldn't recognize it when it when we saw it. Whatever we have of faith we have because someone else did see it, and probably died for it a very long time ago. Our debt is to the dead; our faith does justice to the injustices they suffered. God's house is as much a sepulcher as a cathedral.

But only faith can accept this; reason alone abhors it, and reason won't leave us alone. It tells me that the supplicant is always seeking a sign, if not of a miracle, then at least a token of God's favor: I live, therefore I am favored. Faith tells me that there are truly selfless prayers of supplication, as of those for the unborn ripped daily from their mother's wombs, martyrs to our world of the living. They are the favored ones. And reason says ah, but why does God permit it in the first place? The numbers are incomprehensible. What is the reason for so many pairs of eyes that will never see the light of day, minds that will never think upon the stars, hearts that will never wish upon them? And faith says that but now they see the light of God, that you and I in comfort may shield our eyes from, and bask in, the semi-light of the sun. They think upon the eternal, the unmade, not upon flickerings that come into being and pass out again, nor are their hearts distracted by vain wishes, save the forgiveness of those who dispatched them before their time.

And the debate rages on in our souls as a kind of battle. I should think we'd have a hard time getting by on reason alone; for the few it might lead to God; for the many I think it would end in an ennui of despair. So I will continue to offer those prayers no matter the discomfort, for any kind of prayer is an homage to hope. Maybe in this age of war and rumors thereof, the image of the soldier might be conscripted into service. We shall offer prayers for his safety in a just cause, and then we might try to mimic him by getting up each day, marching orders in hand, to go off into battle, not knowing the outcome nor always the full reason why. Comrades in arms will be wounded and killed, but still we fight. We may be stricken ourselves but, like a penitent to the confessional, like men and women, we get up to try again. Our instinct is to run from the fire of battle, but it appears our destiny is to be forged within it. It is a dreadful work in progress. In the end, so faith says, there will be victory.

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